Try to think of the last time you used a diskette or a rotary telephone − that clunky thing with the receiver and the curled-up cord. When was the last time you took a compact disc − you know, one of those flat round things − and popped it into a stereo to listen to your favorite band?

Although the answers to these questions will vary depending on your age, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s been quite a while since you did these things. And yet, if you take a moment to consider some of the most common daily actions of the digital age, you might be surprised to realize that we are still constantly making use of visual representations of these obsolete objects. For example, in many operating systems, an image of a diskette still appears as the “save” icon. To open a picture or folder on a computer, you click on an icon in the form of a cardboard file folder. And to dial your touch-tone phone or answer a call, you have to touch a phone-receiver symbol. Also, many music programs still use a CD icon, and email is represented by symbols like a stamp or an envelope.

Again, ask yourself when was the last time you actually wrote a letter on paper, sealed it in an envelope, stuck a stamp on it and slipped it into a real, three-dimensional Israel Post mailbox on the street, rather than send your missive via the computer or telephone.

It’s not hard to understand why all these symbols from the “old” world are still with us. Elements from the concrete, tangible world have come into use in our new digital world because the former existed long before the latter. The lexicon of the digital world originated in the physical world: The work table became the desktop, the trash can even found its place on the computer screen, and Web browsers have names like Explorer, Chrome, Safari, Opera and Firefox.

The 21st century poses many challenges to the digital world and developers of a host of operating systems. One of the most difficult and important is to formulate a new visual language that needn’t rely any longer on images from the “old” physical world.
However, while such images may be out of date, it’s obvious why they are still used: The images are so familiar and so closely identified with the activities they represent that we would probably need a very good reason to change them. Moreover, even if we were to replace them with new, more relevant images, what will happen a few years down the road when these new symbols are no longer relevant? Not an unlikely scenario considering the speed at which things change, new applications arise, and the dizzying pace at which social networks come and go.

We challenged several designers to envision a new system of images and icons to symbolize some basic actions that we do on a daily basis: opening a file or folder, saving a file, sending email, playing music files and answering the phone. Their suggestions range from minimalist icons that employ nothing but letters, to icons inspired by the screens of smartphones and tablets, which have generated a new language of touch.

Bee Creations

Bee Creations was founded in 2003 by Eran Bacharach, 38, and Ido Zemach, 37, graduates of the visual communication department at Vital − The Tel Aviv Center for Design Studies, (which later merged with the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, Ramat Gan). The studio now includes three more designers. www.bee-creations.com
“Smartphone and tablet screens have created a new language of touch. The way this language was assimilated led us to propose a concept of icons that will serve as a legend for touch gestures applied at the center of the screen for actions such as save, send email, dial and so on.

“The forms that were chosen are an associative and intuitive interpretation of the way the fingers move on the screen while executing each one of the actions. In addition, the colorfulness enhances the technological feeling and leads the user to apply the action. To get away from the objects that used to symbolize the applications marked with icons, we tried to get back to basics and think about the essence of the action − or, really, about the sensation of the action behind each icon.

“The other icons we created seek to capture the quintessence of those actions in abstract form. The folder is represented by an element of division, sorting and separating. The music icon is stylized in a free and rhythmic way that spreads out. The ‘save’ button is composed of an element that is completely closed within another element, which also creates the sensation of convergence toward the center. The dial icon is a ‘V’ that spreads out like a fan to symbolize making contact and connections. And finally, the email icon represents the information superhighway, with incoming and outgoing messages and a multiplicity of information.”